Piano has always been my source of pride. I received distinctions from piano exams from Grade 1 (beginners) through Grade 8 (advanced); so my heart was pounding when I was ripping open the letter from The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music.

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Two weeks prior to my performance diploma exam, I seriously sprained my finger in PE class. It got very bruised and swollen.  Thus, those crucial weeks were spent visiting an orthopedic doctor and a Chinese chiropractor.  My mother took the trouble to drive me from doctor to doctor everyday so as to minimize the traveling time during my busy schooldays.  The medicine was time-consuming to prepare.  She would first boil the ingredients (Chinese herbs) in the early morning and let it simmer for the whole afternoon.  When she returned home from work, she would grind the mixture into a paste first even before taking a shower after a long day’s work in Hong Kong’s humid weather.  After dinner, Mom changed my cast and placed the Chinese herbal medicine on my task.  It was gruesome, for the herbal medicine was pungent and the casting process was tedious.  Most often, the paste would ooze out from the bandage and permeate through the cloth, thus the bandage must be changed after every fifteen minutes for the first two hours.  Still, she ignored the trouble and changed my cast every time.  All she wished for was a speedy recovery so I could at least squeeze in some practice time.  

It turned out that I could only play again four days before the exam.  Even so, my fingers were still very stiff. I was faced with a grave dilemma. I could proceed to take the exam and force my stiffened fingers to play my demanding program.  Yet my odds of failing were very high. This would mean disappointing my teacher though as well as wasting two thousand dollars’ worth of lessons and the exam fee.  Most importantly, I would also waste the time and effort folks had placed on me.  On the other hand, I could have backed down in the face of this huge challenge; I could simply forfeit the exam and preserve my impeccable record of distinctions.   I could retain my status as ‘The Great Piano Player that Never Failed’ among my friends.

My middle finger still felt numb.  I nudged open the door.  The two examiners smiled pleasantly.  I seated myself comfortably on the piano chair and adjusted the height.  Flipping through the pages, I found my song, and concentrated.  You can do it Michael.  Just ignore the tingling and stiffness in your fingers and play ahead.  Don’t stop.  Just continue and play how you have normally played it.  Mom is waiting patiently outside the room, just hoping that you would play on. The last thing I knew was that notes in my brain moved faster than my fingers did.

Two months later, I received a mail from the Associated Board.  This must be it.  It is going to be biggest moment in my career.

“So how do you feel about the results?” my mom asked at dinner that night.

I did not pass my first diploma exam.  Surprisingly, I was at peace with myself when I saw the results because I knew I had tried. I may have failed the exam, but I have not failed myself.

As I reflected on this incident, I felt that I should have chosen a slightly slower tempo to ensure greater accuracy and a steadier performance.  From this experience, I learnt that no matter how prepared I am for some projects, there could always be sudden mishaps which could ruin the plan.  Should this occur, I should immediately adapt to the changing circumstances and adopt a new strategy.  My failure was not in my ineptitude in piano technique, but rather, in my stubbornness and my unwillingness to adapt.  Through failing, I realized the importance of adapting.  

Afterall, not all is lost from failing the diploma exam.